Now settled back in the UK, Tony Garbelotto will have a busy year ahead as he leads the Glasgow Rocks in the BBL this season as well as preparing to guide Scotland into next year’s Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. The Londoner has also secured the Great Britain coaching role. But this journey had an unexpected speed bump, where he had to deal with heartache before getting his dream job.
The sun had risen in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s most populated metropolis on September 22, 2014 and one of its residents, Tony Garbelotto, an assistant basketball coach from London is waking up ready to head to practice, preparing to put the Saigon Heat, the country’s only professional basketball team through their paces alongside head coach and good friend Jason Rabedeaux.
The Heat competes in the ASEAN Basketball League, a Southeast Asian basketball league where they are one of the newer franchises. Garbelotto was originally alerted to the job by his nephew Rob Newson, who had made a comfortable living out in Ho Chi Minh City as a team’s first ever head coach. Garbelotto took on the job but he arrived instead as a consultant to the team’s president Connor Nguyen.
But mere minutes after he awoke, there was a frantic knock on the door. For Garbelotto, it was unexpected and with his wife, who had travelled to Vietnam for a visit also present, the timing was terrible. But what came of that thud on the door still haunts the 48-year-old to this day.
“It was clear as my events of today,” explained Garbelotto, his voice slightly hesitant. “My wife had come over to visit me on the Friday, we played on the Sunday. We beat Indonesia in a game on that Sunday, so Monday came and I would have been at the gym early but I got a knock on the door of my apartment. Now I lived on one side of the block, Jason lived on the other side; we lived pretty much together and travelled together. So I answered and there was a policeman standing there and the manager of the apartment complex and they were speaking Vietnamese so I couldn’t understand what they were saying. They handed me a phone. It was the team manager on the other line, he was crying and he told me that ‘you have to come to Rab’s apartment, something terrible has happened, it looks like he has died’, so I went over there and I remember it clearly, it was terrible.”
Rabedeaux, a native of Aurora, Illinois and one of the most promising young coaches at college level with spells as an assistant at Washington State and Oklahoma leading his pathway to a head coaching role at the UTEP Miners out of El Paso, Texas and then eventually to Saigon Heat in 2012, died of a traumatic brain injury just 13 days into Garbelotto’s reign as the American’s assistant.
The popular slogan of ‘Basketball Never Stops’, which was originally made famous by Nike, all of a sudden took a back seat, in fact basketball was firmly in the rear view mirror at this point in time as Garbelotto tried to piece together everything. A man that he had spent everyday with, sometimes up to three times a day, was all of a sudden gone. He was stunned.
After a few days, when the basketball resumed, and it had to, Garbelotto, part of a team that now needed direction and even an incentive to play, was handed the reigns, however there was a change in atmosphere around the Saigon Heat training complex and suddenly, Garbelotto, still in his first season with the Heat, and now away from his comfort zone all-together was involved in one of the toughest jobs of his career and he knew that he had to be the leader just so he could get the players motivated. He wasn’t an assistant now: he was the coach.
He was the man.
“We tried as hard as possible… for him,” Garbelotto said. “I stopped using the ‘let’s go to war’ or anything with a mention of death in it. We did try and stay away from the coach Rab mantra, but we were playing and coaching for him and trying to make him proud. I let the players be a little loose for the first couple of weeks, I changed a few things, but these were things that the senior players wanted to change and they were things that I was doing in practice anyway.”
With the players now coming to terms and dealing with the overall shock of Rabedeaux’s death, Garbelotto felt that he got over the toughest obstacle that he had ever attempted to climb, and even today he admits that he was emotionally drained after his first season in Vietnam. But despite overcoming those odds, his dedication and support to his team, something that has been with Garbelotto since he began his coaching odyssey in the small gyms in Newham – Atherton and Rokeby in the early 1990s was the ultimate beacon of hope for his young team.
“We made some minor adjustments and as a team, we were rocky for the first weeks and being honest, things were still emotional … you could understand why, of course,” Garbelotto admits. “But towards the end we played better and I told them ‘we need to finish this season correctly’, we won a couple of huge games, we beat Singapore for the first time ever and then we beat Indonesia in Indonesia in overtime and that got us into the play-offs.
“From there, we put up a great fight but it was a step too far for us but it’s funny as I was looking at some break down clips the other day of that playoff series and I was like ‘Jesus Christ, we had guys, local guys that could barely play, coming off the bench and they’re contributing’, which is something that was also done in the two-to-three years that I was there.”
THE JOURNEY BACK HOME
Garbelotto’s time in Vietnam didn’t just see him transform a team in mourning, en route to play-off appearances in his next two seasons before leaving. He also helped set-up the Vietnam Basketball Association, a professional league that gave players a chance to live out their dreams of playing high-level basketball, something that was sparse in the country plus with only the Saigon Heat as an option, the opportunities were limited until Garbelotto started and then saw-out this remarkable project, which he calls his greatest achievement in the three years spent out there.
And through his passion and unparalleled love for the game, He made the sport a recognisable force in Southeast Asia. The VBA is now in its second season of existence with six teams looking to dethrone the inaugural champions, the Danang Dragons.
But despite the successes through tremendous adversity, Garbelotto started to ponder about his personal life and need for instant change. A new opportunity back home, but north of the border, with British Basketball League outfit, Glasgow Rocks came about and Garbelotto was certainly intrigued. His successes in Vietnam, well noted but back home in Great Britain saw him win his only bits of silverware as a head coach, winning the BBL League, play-off, Trophy and Cup all with the now defunct Everton Tigers from 2009 to 2011.
The lure of returning home had a personal touch as well. “My personal circumstances changed when my wife gave birth to our daughter, my first child,” Garbelotto explained, all of a sudden the hesitance and seriousness from talking about his fallen colleague fading and replaced with a smile.
“That was real massive and that was a real factor in me coming back, I wanted to be home as for me personally, it was not the best place to bring up a child in Vietnam, even though the experience there was great, the circumstances had changed. I wanted to see her grow up and be there for the key elements in her life. And for me, I wanted to see more of my parents, they’re not getting any younger, I spent six years away from them and I wanted to see more of them.”
The circumstances changed even further when Garbelotto was approached to be the new head coach of the Great Britain men’s national team, who were looking for a replacement to Joe Prunty, an assistant coach of the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA. With the chance to become the first ever British-born head coach of the national team since the inception in 2006, he could not turn it down.
His first task will be guiding GB, who are ranked a credible 22nd in the FIBA world rankings since last summer’s Rio Olympics past the Basketball World Cup qualifiers, which start in November when they host traditional powerhouse Greece in Leicester.
“I’m extremely proud of being made the head coach of the national team,” he said. “It’s something that twenty years ago or so when I started coaching junior basketball in Hackney I could never even have dreamt about. It was trying to be successful, trying to help young players become better players and then getting involved with professional teams, so very, very proud.”
For Garbelotto, the last three years have felt like a lifetime, with the emotions involved, but he’s home now. The experience in Vietnam an overall positive one, despite the pain of losing a close friend, but for the proud Brit, regardless of where he is and whom he is up against, the spirit of Jason Rabedeaux will always be supporting him.